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Ilsa is worried about going to school in America next year. “What if I don’t do well in conjugation?” she says. “What if they ask me to write a paragraph in the past simple and I don’t know what that is?” “Don’t worry,” I tell her. Conjugation isn’t likely to be a problem. I expect she’ll do fine, even well, but she’s not comforted by my vague answers.

She asks about the popular kids. “What is American school like? Is it like French school? Are the popular kids the smart ones? Or is it like in the movies?” “Like the movies,” I think, but I don’t say this. Maybe her junior high will somehow be different. I don’t know. I remember moving, at the age of nearly 12, from a tiny town on the Canadian prairies to a new town and new school in California, and how terrified I was, thanks to the movies, and scary books like “Blubber.” They proved to be accurate enough in my case, and I hated that California junior high. I don’t want her to hate her new school. I don’t want it to be like the movies.

In the meantime, I search for online school reviews. One says, “Before I came to X school, I got bad grades, but hear I get strate A’s.” This stresses me no end. No way can I send them to this school.

I shoot off frantic emails to friends. “What do you know about schools?” I ask them. I have a friend who’s an elementary school principal and she’s fantastic, telling me which schools are good, pointing me in the right direction. I find a review praising a junior high for involved teachers and high academic standards. Of course these new schools have requirements that families live within certain boundaries. I don’t know how we’re going to manage that in time.

When I was in junior high, I looked forward desperately to adulthood. I would see my mother, on her rare visits to my school, chatting confidently with my teachers. I wonder, now, if she was as worried for me as I am for my own children. Perhaps she wasn’t. After all, we all project our own experiences and backgrounds onto our present lives. Her childhood in a Welsh town, attending a school where the headmistress was a personal friend of my grandmother’s, experiencing WW2 and its aftermath, was very different from mine. I suspect when you are grieving the loss of a close cousin whose house was bombed, or helping refugee children from London settle in the area, you aren’t so worried about what’s in style and who’s not speaking to whom. Ilsa’s experience, again, is vastly different; although she’ll go to an American school next year, she’ll probably drop a few French words here and there, show up with a fountain pen in her trousse, and generally be exotic enough that I suspect she’ll enjoy at least some initial popularity. I hope so! Because I, too, am worried about school in America next year.

July 2010

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